A Guide to 3 Fascinating Historical Villains You Probably Won’t Know Much About

About the Author
Stephanie Allen read Classics and English at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, and is currently researching an MA in English Literature.
Image shows Catullus's Lesbia with a sparrow on her hand.So you know all about Napoleon Bonaparte, you’re a veritable mine of information on Attila the Hun, and you’ve repeated the mnemonic ‘divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived’ more times than you can count.

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But what about the people behind the scenes, the ones pulling all the levers and pulleys, the shadowy figures who bob and weave, making things happen, somehow dodging the limelight even as they gather power and influence? These are surely among the most fascinating characters to learn about when you study History. This guide discusses three fascinating historical baddies who were at the epicentre of their political worlds, and whose actions had lasting effects on history, but whose variously murderous, deceiving and scheming exploits you’ve probably never heard of…

Clodia Metelli (or, the real-life Medea)

Image shows a young woman in a diaphanous robe, standing in a doorway.
Lesbia, or Clodia Metelli, as painted by John Reinhard Weguelin.

If you wanted to be truly, thoroughly, astonishingly bad, Ancient Rome was an excellent place to do it. The city’s dark, angular streets and gloomy nooks and crannies were crammed with unsavoury characters committing crimes that ranged from the merely dubious to the downright depraved: gruesome murders; bribery, corruption and sedition; prostitution; buckets of dung poured over politicians’ heads in the senate-house. And what was perhaps most remarkable about all this carry-on was that its main perpetrators were the city’s richest: members of the ruling class squabbling over power and money. It wasn’t for nothing that the orator Cicero deplored the state of the city’s morals in one of his best-loved speeches: O tempora, O mores! (O the times, O the customs!).
Now, I expect you’re au fait with many of the major characters in the famous story of the last days of the Roman republic: there was Cicero himself, of course, alongside Julius Caesar, Pompey, Mark Anthony, and the emperor-to-be Octavian, to name but a few. But you may not have heard of an aristocratic woman who, quite remarkably, in a period of history famed for its corruption and dissolution, managed to make a name for herself as being especially wicked. But Clodia Metelli, you see, when she wanted to, could be really, properly, bad.
Clodia was the sister of the ambitious populist politician Clodius, a long-time enemy of the orator Cicero, who changed his family’s name in order to advance his political career. Clodia was in many ways a gifted political agent herself, and without a doubt an archetypal Bad Woman. As was customary among Rome’s ruling classes, Clodia entered into an arranged marriage with her first cousin, Metellus Celer – but the historian Plutarch tells us that the couple argued constantly, and often in public. When Metellus died mysteriously in 59BC, Clodia was suspected of having poisoned her husband.

Image shows the Palatine in modern-day Rome.
The Palatine, where Clodia Metelli lived in luxury.

The widow lived in a grand mansion on the most expensive street in Rome, the Palatine, and she is recorded to have thrown lavish and often debauched parties there and at her holiday home in Baiae, involving as a bare minimum plenty of drinking and gambling. Plutarch explains Clodia’s famous nickname, Quadrantaria, as a reference to the fee of ‘quadrans’ (a tiny amount of money) she was rumoured to receive from one of her many lovers.In a speech called the Pro Caelio, delivered in Rome’s law-courts, Cicero accused Clodia of entering into a conspiracy to falsely convict the young politician Caelius of attempting to poison her, labelling Clodia ‘the Medea of the Palatine’ and throwing in some other fairly embarrassing accusations, including, most memorably, one of incest with her brother.
Given the patriarchal nature of ancient Roman society, in which any woman with a degree of social or political power and control was vulnerable to accusations of immoderacy, and the consequent ease with which Cicero could draw upon Medea-like stereotypes of lustful, scheming and depraved women to defame his opponent, the orator’s accusations are perhaps best taken with a pinch of salt. But if we side with prevalent scholarly opinion, attacks in a very similar vein are made upon Clodia in the Carmina of a trendy contemporary poet, Gaius Valerius Catullus.

Image shows Catullus surrounded by friends at dinner.
Catullus depicted at Lesbia’s house.

Catullus, a member of the wealthy intelligentsia who for the most part shunned political life, wrote a book of 116 poems on themes from everyday Roman life, 25 of which concern an affair with a married, upper-clas Roman woman assigned the pseudonym ‘Lesbia’. On the basis of a number of subtle puns upon the name of Clodia and that of her brother in these poems, the majority of modern scholars accept the thesis that Lesbia is in fact our Clodia Metelli. In the happier of the love-poems, we learn that Lesbia is clever, educated, witty and attractive, far outshining all other women in the eyes of the narrator. But what begin as intimations of the narrator’s intense vulnerability and suspicion soon grow into anguished (and luridly detailed) accusations of Lesbia’s infidelity – and even assertions that she is a prostitute. The Lesbia-poetry ranges from exuberant, naive declarations of love, as in ‘Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love!’ to obscene, dramatic depiction of her crimes, to moralistic outrage:
“My mind has been brought so low by your conduct, Lesbia,
And so undone itself by its own goodwill,
That now if you were perfect it could not like you,
Nor cease to love you, whatever you might do.”
Since Catullus was perhaps the first person to write something that resembled modern love-poetry, and therefore to a certain extent set the rules of the genre, variations of Lesbia (or, it is tempting to think, Clodia) have appeared in the best-loved European love poetry – from that of Propertius, to Petrarch, to Sidney, to Shakespeare – throughout the ages. The ‘type’ of the Bad Woman – scheming, lustful, whorish – had been around as long as Medea and ancient Greek mythology, but Catullus ensured its continuation in love lyric. Thus, perhaps ironically, Clodia Metelli’s numerous literary tellings-off would come to immortalise her.

Seneca the Younger (and Nastier)

Image shows Seneca's dead body surrounded by people.
Luca Giordano’s ‘The Death of Seneca.’

Henry VIII had Thomas Cromwell. Napoleon had Jean Lannes. And the tyrannical Roman emperor Nero had Lucius Annaeus Seneca. If you’re a literature or philosophy buff, you might well have heard of or even read some of the work for which Seneca has been celebrated throughout history: his eight tragedies, the only surviving examples of the genre in Latin; his philosophical writings, including works entitled On Clemency and On the Brevity of Life, or his collection of letters dedicated to philosophical questions such as leisure, happiness and suicide.
But perhaps Seneca’s most interesting achievement was to combine his prolific output of moralising literary work with a prolific career in supporting, enabling and publicising the increasingly manic acts of the despot emperor Nero. Tutor to the prince in his childhood years, and an advisor when he became emperor, Seneca is truly one of history’s most vexed and complex characters – a man who could coin phrases like ‘Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for a kindness’ and ‘He who is brave is free’ while agreeing to the murder of Nero’s mother, Agrippina.
Born in the Roman Cordoba in the Roman province of Hispania between 10 and 1 BC, Seneca’s family moved to Rome when he was a young boy. His father was a wealthy rhetorician, and the son inherited his verbal gifts; a studious (and perennially sickly) child, he was trained in the art of speech as well as philosophy from an early age. Even in his youth, Seneca, it seems, was a character on whom controversy and scandal naturally converged: in 41 AD, the then-emperor Claudius banished him to the island of Corsica on trumped-up charges of adultery with the princess Julia Livilla. Seneca spent 8 years on Corsica, where he studied natural philosophy and wrote a number of his famous tragedies and philosophical tracts.

Image shows Nero in a red robe, lying on a bed with his head in his hands.
A remorseful Nero following the murder of his mother.

In 49, Agrippina, the calculating mother of the emperor-to-be, Nero, recalled the philosopher from his exile to tutor her son – and an unholy, and ultimately destructive alliance was born. From the year 54 AD, when Nero took the throne, until roughly 62, Seneca acted as one of Nero’s two political advisers – but as the young emperor became increasingly more paranoid, mad and despotic, Seneca was forced to support, enable and commit acts whose wickedness jars sharply against the clear moral values set out in the philosophical writings and tragedies for which he was later so revered. The historian Cassius Dio recorded the rumours that circulated among patricians and plebeians alike about the court adviser’s hypocrisy and self-interest:
“Nor was (Seneca’s support of the murder of Agrippina) the only instance in which his conduct was seen to be diametrically opposed to the teachings of his philosophy. For while denouncing tyranny, he was making himself the teacher of a tyrant; while inveighing against the associates of the powerful, he did not hold aloof from the palace itself; and though he had nothing good to say of flatterers, he himself had constantly fawned… Though finding fault with the rich, he himself had acquired a fortune of 300,000,000 sesterces; and though he censured the extravagances of others, he had 500 tables of citrus wood with legs of ivory, all identically alike, and he served banquets on them.”
But if he was able to ignore the mutterings of his detractors, poor old Seneca had a much bigger problem coming in the form of his barmy, paranoid boss – inevitably, of course, the tyrant turned on his servant. In 65, three years after his retirement, Seneca was vaguely but fatally implicated in the Pisonian Conspiracy to kill Nero. Though it was very unlikely that the ageing philosopher had actually been part of the plot, Nero demanded that his old adviser commit suicide. In keeping with the gruesome horrors that characterised the Neronian age, Seneca managed to do this in the most bungled, gory and painful way possible – having failed to lose enough blood after he slit his wrists, he drank poison, which also did not work, and then drowned himself in his bath. In fact, the suicide was a botched, almost farcical version of the ideal suicide depicted in his epistle ‘On Suicide’. In death, the janus-faced, slippery philosopher finally did something he said he would.

Martin Marprelate

Image shows a stained-glass window of Whitgift at the bedside of the dying Queen Elizabeth.
Bishop Whitgift had extensive powers of censorship.

Perhaps the most shadowy and elusive of our villains, the true identity of the satirical pamphleteer Martin Marprelate continues to puzzle scholars to this day. Writing in the last decade of the sixteenth century, during the reign of Elizabeth I, Marprelate was the pen-name of a single Puritan author, or a group of authors, whose self-appointed mission it was to undermine and satirise the powerful members of the Anglican clergy.  This was a breathtakingly daring response to strict censorship policies enforced by the government in 1586, which stated that any books, pamphlets or tracts published in England must first be authorised by either Bishop Whitgift, or the Bishop of London – leading members of the clergy. This policy was received with great hostility by the Puritan minority, who felt that its intention was to suppress and silence their voices.
Martin released a series of pamphlets from secret printing presses hidden in various houses around the country. The pamphlets are cheekily funny, and truly scabrous in their satire: Marprelate daringly names one of the pamphlets ‘Hay any work for Cooper?’, imagining the situation in which the current Bishop of Winchester, Thomas Cooper, has been sacked from his post and is looking for work as a ‘tub-trimmer’. But this mock-innocent, stagey teasing everywhere gives way to a more serious portrayal of the moral corruption of the bishops and prelates. Throughout the tracts, the great and the good of the religious world are portrayed variously as ‘carnal and senseless beasts’, ‘monstrous and ungodly wretches’, ‘swine’ and ‘dumb dogs’, everywhere associated with drunkenness and lechery. Ideas of unchecked, all-consuming depravity are imposed upon them: ‘Horrible and senseless beasts, whither will your madness grow in a while?’ and Marprelate can be crushingly specific: ‘Our lord bishops… that swinish rabble, are petty antichrists, petty popes, proud prelates, intolerable withstanders of reformation, enemies of the gospel, and most covetous wretched priests’.

Image shows the front page of a black and white pamphlet.
An anti-Martinist tract.

Nowadays, articles having a laugh at the expense of our politicians or religious figures, and even vicious verbal ad hominem attacks, are ten a penny. But the force with which the authorities responded to Marprelate’s attack shows just how scared his pamphlets had made them, and just how weak they perceived their hold on power to be. First, they enlisted the help of a number of popular writers, including Thomas Nashe, to write responses to Martin in exactly the style with which he had mocked the bishops – portraying the writer, for example, as a drunken, lustful monkey. Second, they conducted night-time raids on houses about the country, searching for secret printing presses, and arresting and executing several prominent Puritans who they suspected might be involved in the publications. Much modern ink has been spent on the question of who Martin Marprelate might have been – and even though he almost certainly met a grisly end, all can agree that the satirist was one of the most influential secret rebels of the sixteenth century.

Image credits: banner; Lesbia; the Palatine; Catullus; Seneca; Nero; Whitgift; pamphlet.